Indigo Work Of Rowland Ricketts At Wright State
Rowland Ricketts delves into the realm of what he calls “immanent blue” (Aizome) personified by the indigo plant and its ability to recall the color of the sea and sky and “to transfigure all the energy of human endeavor so that its vitality lends its life to and lives on in my dyed works.” The transmutation of the ancient art of indigo dyeing into contemporary installation pieces is the focus of the exhibition “Past Present: The Indigo Work of Rowland Ricketts” on view through Sunday, October 10 at the Robert & Elaine Stein Galleries of Wright State University.
The use of indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) was initiated in India as early as 1600 B.C. and used in the indigo-dyed cloth wrappings of Egyptian mummies, later perfected for fabrics, hangings and bindle wrappings in Japan. “The smell of an indigo vat just as it begins fermenting and springs to life is one of ripeness” writes Ricketts, “I momentarily stand between the history of the materials and processes that helped me get the indigo thus far and the promise of all the works that the vat is still yet to realize.”
Ricketts studied as an apprentice for two years in Tokushima, Japan with Osamu Nii and in a year-long apprenticeship in the atelier of master dyer, Richiro Furusho, a Tukushima Prefectural Living Treasure. His acquired knowledge of traditional farming and dyeing techniques led to his own growing, harvesting, drying of the leaves, and the composting of it “to make the traditional Japanese indigo dyestuff called ‘sukumo’.” He returned to the United States, received his M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and is now assistant professor of textiles at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he farms and cultivates his chosen material from scratch.
Ricketts has utilized the unique two-level space of the WSU gallery to create a quietly spectacular and meditational open enclosure that centers around a large bed or square of dried indigo plants. Suspended from high above in concentric circles are long spans of cotton mop material, some natural and most dyed either completely or partially in indigo blue, demonstrating the tonal variety of indigo and creating a shrine that honors the material itself. Surrounding on all four walls is a horizon line of half-dyed indigo wool pieces like fuzzy feathers with the lower blue sections anchoring the firmament.
Augmenting this ethereal space, Ricketts has chosen to show in the outer gallery several other permutations of his use of indigo, with a rectangular wall arrangement of indigo plants still morphing from green to shades of blue mounted on dark blue pushpins, and a thoughtful slow-paced documentation of indigo growth and processing in video projection. There are five hanging panels of indigo-dyed antique hemp mosquito curtains, elegantly imprinted with paste resist vertical lines of white discs on the fabric indigo-dyed from left to right in lighter to darker shades of blue. Another wall installation has a varied matrix of indigo dyed felt wrapped stones mounted on thick metal pins, producing the effect of interspersed dark and light objects like an Op Art color field.
Rickett’s wife Chinami also attended the Furusho workshop and went on to learn to weave in Kyoto and Shimane Prefecture, spinning cotton into yarn and reinventing traditional kasuri designs for use in kimonos. Her parallel career complements her husband’s and has encouraged collaborative projects as textile artists.
In the upstairs Cantelupe Gallery are many 19th century hand-woven and dyed Japanese textiles from Rickett’s collection. Full of “historical blue” pieces, this selection of textile art reflects in the words of curator Lisa Morrisette “the eye of an artist, selected because they represent the processes and idiosyncrasies of the indigo dyer… all hand spun, hand dyed, the guiding principle in their creation was no waste, repair, and reuse.”
Mounted above the stairwell is a Sleeping Set and Futon cover in the shape of a kimono, all probably a bride’s trousseau imprinted with the circular family crest (mon).
A baby Layette (tsutsugaki technique) has stylized bamboo and plum blossom motifs, representing long life and renewal, and a two-piece Kamishino costume for a Samurai Child (c. 19th century) has a stencil pattern of white dots suggesting a hailstorm, or the force of the warrior. A blue wrapping cloth is imprinted with a swallowtail butterfly motif drawn with a white paste resist, and western-style jeans from the 19th century are repaired by necessity by an infusion of tattered indigo-dyed rags, producing a very modern chic effect.
Additionally, a Furoshiki for tying around bundles is made in sashiko technique or little reinforcement stitches, a Futon cover in Katazome technique (stenciled with flour paste resist and soybean paste) was brushed with dye and joined skillfully into an overall woven brocade, and a Futon cover with a Noshime design is made of dried abalone strips bound together with cord (noshi) for the continuation of the family line designed for a wedding gift. Viewing these beautiful traditional objects, we must concur as Morrisette has pointed out: “Indigo dyeing verges on becoming a lost art, the traditional process replaced by synthetic blue dyes.”
The Robert & Elaine Stein Galleries are located in the Creative Arts Center of Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy, Fairborn. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and until 7 p.m. Thursday, and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call (937) 775-2978 or visit
Reach DCP visual arts critic Jud Yalkut at email@example.com